Posted on Friday, May 4, 2012 by Peter Knego
The largest, most lavish steamboat ever built, the AMERICAN QUEEN, returns to service under the newly-formed Great American Steamboat Company banner. Join Peter Knego for a day in the vessel’s new homeport of Memphis, a gala re-christening by godmother Priscilla Presley and a night of Mississippi River steamboatin’.
All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
The afternoon prior to the grand and glorious AMERICAN QUEEN steamboat’s christening under the Great American Steamboat Company banner, I arrived at the Madison Hotel in downtown Memphis. Almost immediately after dropping off my luggage, I raced over to the Peabody Hotel to witness the 5:00 PM “March of the Ducks”. I had absolutely no idea what that entailed but it is a Memphian “must”.
A steamy walk brought me to the opulent Peabody just as several coaches pulled up with camera-clad tourists. As I would soon learn, the concept of the march germinated in 1933 when the hotel’s general manager had a bit too much to drink and snuck in some live mallard decoys as a gag. The ducks spent the night in the fountain, much to everyone’s delight and in 1940, a circus trainer offered to bring ducks to the fountain twice a day, in a tradition that has continued ever since.
Unfazed by the fuss around them, some four or five ducks were basking in the palatial environs and camera flashes. Beats an obscure lake and gunfire.
It was all elbows and shoulders trying to get a quick snap of the cute little quackers as they were paraded along the red carpet.
Once they were corralled for their ascent back to the roof, I was off to the Mississippi waterfront.
After making local headlines and getting national TV news coverage on her maiden return to Memphis, the AMERICAN QUEEN was attracting hordes of spectators along the highway overlooking Beale Street Landing.
That evening, there was a small gathering for media on the roof of the Madison Hotel. Memphis mayor A.C. Wharton, Jr., who enthusiastically backed the campaign to homeport the vessel in Memphis, was on hand for the mingle.
Ten floors beneath us and a mile or so away, straining against her mooring lines, the freshly restored grande dame of the river huffed and puffed her way into the Tennessee night.
Friday, April 27, 2012
With Priscilla Presley as the godmother, there was no better prelude to the AMERICAN QUEEN’s christening than a morning visit to Graceland, Elvis’ former home and Memphis’ biggest tourist attraction.
All visitors are shuttled past the gate engraved with thousands of inscriptions from ardent fans. I had expected Graceland to be much bigger but it is actually rather modest compared to some of the overtly garish Beverly Hills and Bel Air mansions in California.
The colonial style house was actually built on a 13.8 acre site in 1939 by a Memphis newspaperman and named for his daughter Grace. In 1957, the property was bought by Elvis Presley’s family and significantly remodeled to suit the King of Rock’s “larger than” lifestyle.
Perhaps I’ve been desensitized by over-the-top modern cruise ship interiors but Graceland seemed rather tame with its fusion of MidCentury, Colonial and Las Vegas modes. One thing was for certain — the King obviously loved blue and white.
The TV room in the basement must have seemed pretty high tech in its day with three TV consoles, yellow/green shag carpet, Elvis’ signature thunderbolt insignia, black settees and yellow throw pillows.
Presley gave up shooting guns in his private firing range when a ricocheted bullet pierced his daughter Lisa-Marie’s slide. Luckily, she was at school when it happened.
Even for non-Elvis fans, Graceland is nostalgic and fascinating. One could hardly not be impressed with the collection of gold and platinum records and some of his more flamboyant outfits.
To avert grave robbers, Elvis’ body was moved from a local cemetery to the site where his parents are also interred. Visitors are allowed free access each day to place flowers on his grave.
We transitioned from the realm of the King of Rock to that of the Queen of the River. When we arrived at still unfinished Beale Street Landing, our bags were piled onto a golf cart and we held on tight for a ride down its spiral ramp to the red carpeted landing.
The local excursion boat MEMPHIS QUEEN came in for a close pass off the AMERICAN QUEEN’s stern.
I did my best to get photos of the accommodation and public areas but cleaning was still in progress and preparations were being made for the christening ceremony. I last saw AMERICAN QUEEN at St. Paul shortly before her last operators, Majestic America Line, declared bankruptcy. After over three years of layup in the dismal conditions of Beaumont, Texas, it was nothing short of a miracle to see her back and running again.
At 3:00 PM, guests gathered on the landing to observe the naming ceremony. There was a momentary hush when godmother Priscilla Presley appeared on the balcony with Great American Steamboat Company’s top brass.
There were numerous speeches from representatives of the Riverfront Development Corporation, the AMERICAN QUEEN’s Cruise Director (Steve Spracklen), the US Coast Guard, Mayor Wharton, the office of Congressman Steve Cohen and Great American’s top executives (Jeff Krida, John Waggoner and Christopher Kyte). The U.S. Navy Color Guard from Millington, TN performed the National Anthem and Judy Whitney Davis belted out “Old Man River” before the boat was blessed by Reverend Richard W. Carr. And, then, a rousing “America The Beautiful” before the Godmother gave her speech, welcoming AMERICAN QUEEN to her hometown.
Meanwhile, from up on the front porch, my adorable Aunt Mary waved. We all shifted toward the bow of the ship where the AMERICAN QUEEN was officially christened and her bottle-slinging godmother got a little drenched. The era of the “Grace Boat” had just begun…
There was a press briefing in the Grand Saloon afterwards where Mrs. Presley and Great American’s top execs. fielded questions.
Afterwards, our cabin was ready for its occupants. We were in 422 (aka the Allegheny River Suite) on port Observation Deck (4). A Category B Deluxe Outside, it featured French doors that opened onto the promenade, two twin beds and a private bathroom with tub and shower. In addition to the outside access, there was also a door to the main interior passage on Observation Deck.
The cabin had a tub/shower combination, a porcelain sink, tiled flooring and a rack for toiletries.
Great American provides large bottles of shower gel, shampoo, conditioner and moisturizer.
At 5:15, just before the “Grace Boat” cast her lines, we descended to the spectacular J.M. White Dining Room. Based on the double deck saloon on board the fabled steamer of the same name, the J.M. White has picture windows with a view of the river, soaring chandeliers, tapestries and stained glass windows.
Great American has introduced new table settings with gold table cloths, linen napkins and fine stemware.
When we emerged from our first meal, Memphis was well in our wake.
That evening, we attended Fred Radke’s Harry James Orchestra in the Grand Saloon. Radke, formerly James’ first trumpeter, led a full fourteen piece band through an astoundingly good set of Big Band standards. They set a very high bar for the rest of the week.
And, later, despite being tired from all the traveling, we were off to the Engine Room Bar. Accompanied by the chugging of the paddlewheel, singer Jackie Bankston was at her bawdy best with a range of tunes from the 50s through today. It was great to see this AMERICAN QUEEN alumnus back in her element. Can’t imagine the place without her.
Outside, that magically-lit wheel looked as beautiful as ever. Fresh from a complete rebuilding, it would churn us along for the next week on a sentimental and uncommon journey up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Very special thanks: Greg Brown, Martin Cox, Nora Farrell, Mary Ferlin, Mike Hicks, Christopher Kyte, Tim Rubacky,